March Or Run For Facts

Update 1/29. And the activism keeps on coming (though a more traditional mode of academic protest): the online petition of academics against the executive order restricting immigration. One of the strongest exports of the US is education; tangling up immigration rules in a rather ham-handed fashion will discourage international students, reducing the familiarity of foreigners with the U.S. while hurting already reeling universities financially (10% of the students at CU Boulder are international students; already international applications are down over 7% from last year. At CU, international students pay out of state tuition, which subsidizes the education of Colorado residents).

Probably one of the least anticipated consequences of Trump’s election is the growing politicization of scientists. The latest salvo is a proposed Science March on Washington DC, a proposal that has mushroomed in a few days. Others call for scientists to run for office; one organization provides support for scientists who decide to seek election. This comes on the heels of a rally held at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union meeting, an event unlike any other in memory. Something new is happening.

Scientists traditionally have stayed out of politics as much as possible.  One reason is a desire to be truth tellers to all; professing allegiance to a political party means your speech is now colored by partisan bias–perhaps yours or perhaps the listener’s.  Another is that the emotional characteristics of a scientist aren’t tightly aligned with the kinds of behaviors politicians need (scientists rarely compromise, for instance, but they will change their minds in the face of sufficient evidence–aka flip-flop.  Halfway from a right position towards a wrong position is, well, adopting a wrong position). As a community, scientists are loathe to align with a political party both because the community itself is heterogenous but also because becoming a special interest group beholden to one party both damages scientific findings in the public’s eyes and makes long-term funding of science far more of a political football.

[Not to say some with science backgrounds haven’t entered politics.  Former Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had an MS in geophysics; Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado has an MS in geology. But PhD level research scientists haven’t been as common in politics.]

But after years of some sectors of science being vilified as some kind of liberal conspiracy by member of Congress, the president’s difficulty with factual evidence seems to have been the last straw. Many scientists are deciding that enough is enough; the risks to the field are too great to be ignored. If science is going to be branded as some whacko liberal conspiracy anyways, then the risks of getting involved are a whole lot smaller than they used to be.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


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  1. Quick notes | The Grumpy Geophysicist - January 30, 2017

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